No matter what happens, The Challenge season 39 will be crowning two new champions.
Last week, MTV announced the upcoming season of the flagship reality series is going to be The Challenge: Battle for a New Champion, and as the title says, the cast is made up of 24 players who have never won before (check out EW's exclusive photo of the cast below). These "contenders" will battle it out for their first-ever championship title, while legendary Challenge champs like CT Tamburello and Cara Maria Sorbello will appear only in eliminations. And since this franchise is best known and beloved for bringing back those fan-favorite champs season after season, longtime Challenge showrunner Emer Harkin knows that casting a season without them in the game is a big risk.
Jonne Roriz/Paramount The cast of 'The Challenge' season 39
"It was the hope that [bringing in the champions for eliminations] will balance things out, but ... our show is a long-standing soap opera of beloved characters that we've all grown up with and that we love," Harkin tells EW. "So having a lesser presence of those characters is always a gamble, but The Challenge is a show and a franchise that is not afraid to be daring and to take risks, and to broaden our lens and to try new things."
As the milestone of season 40 fast approaches, the team behind The Challenge wanted to take a big swing and get some new champions before that sure-to-be-massive event happens. "Of course there's a concern, because all those cast members are so beloved and they're who we follow and they're who we tune in for, but hopefully this will be a balance that will be appetizing," Harkin says. "It's hard to keep everybody happy, but it's certainly an avenue that we wanted to explore for a long time."
The Challenge has done a season kind of like this before, although with some crucial differences. Ten seasons ago, Invasion of the Champions brought in heavy hitters halfway through the game as a twist for the cast of non-winners. But this time, the lines between the champions and the contenders won't get blurred, since the champions won't actually enter the game. "No one wanted our champions to come in and rule the house and dominate and be able to get involved in politics and manipulate the game," Harkin says. "The contenders are playing the game, and we wanted them to play their own game, so we wanted to feature the champions and for them to have a really significant imprint on the game, but without being in the house and manipulating like they did in Invasion."
Plus, this time the champions will be competing against the contenders head-to-head in eliminations, which was the biggest complaint about Invasion (as the champions had to compete against each other, making it easier on the underdogs). "The Challenge would not be The Challenge without a prominent vet presence, and we tossed around a million different ways to bring them into the show that was fair, that was purposeful," Harkin says. "We really wanted to bring them in in a way that presented champion vets in the very honorable light that they should be held. Their presence this time is foreboding and threatening and it looms large, and has a really cataclysmic impact on the game. It's really fun to see how the head-to-heads play out, because they can turn the game upside down."
But Harkin clarifies that the champions are not coming in as mercenaries (as fans have seen in past seasons) — their title is simply champions. "The champions are there as roadblocks to stand in their way and challenge them to perform like a champion," she adds. "If you can get through a champ, then you have a right to be there. In order to be the best, you're going to have to beat the best — and it really is like the Hall of Fame. They're out for blood, and not only do they reserve the right to beat them and get them out of the game, they can also steal their money. It's like the ultimate insult if a champ can come in and wipe the floor with you and take your money on the way out."
However, the format of champions coming in for eliminations is not like the previous red skull twist. "Being in the final isn't contingent on beating a champ," Harkin reveals. "Just by virtue of the number of episodes that we have and the different levels to our format this season, it doesn't mean that everybody is going to take on a champion and must win in order to make the final. But the vast majority of our finalists will have beaten a champion. A few of them will have skirted by, but they were the ones who played a very, very shrewd and social game to be able to get by."
The showrunner promises that season 39 is one of the most serious installments of the franchise yet. "It isn't frivolous, it's not like you're coming in and you're here to party and have a good time," she says. "These are people that want to become part of the legacy of The Challenge franchise, and so you're going to have to prove yourself and work your ass off. Nothing about it is going to be easy. The challenges are harder, the eliminations are harder, you're going to take on the absolute crème de la crème of our champions, and at the end of this no one is ever going to be able to say that you're not a deserving champion."
In fact, Harkin says that every single elimination is going to be a battle, both for the contenders and the champions. "There are some huge nail-biters, there are endurance challenges, it runs the gamut," she adds. "We see blood, we see sweat, we see tears, literally, in all of these eliminations. It's very real and it's very raw. We didn't want to ever serve up an elimination that was a masterclass for our champs, that they could come in with experience and be like, 'Easy, I know exactly how to play this.' It was about showcasing all of the facets of what it means to be a true Challenge champ, so everything has been carefully curated, and the outcomes of all of the eliminations are really surprising."
It all results in a season that Harkin calls "a breath of fresh air."
"It's a really interesting lens to put on our franchise, and it's one that we've never seen before," she says. "It's very different and unpredictable. We were really kept guessing in terms of the game that everybody was playing right up until the end. It was really peculiar, to be honest — when there isn't this foreboding champion presence in the house and they're all left to their own devices, to see how they play the game was fascinating. We were scratching our head at a lot of moments, but it's compelling and very experimental. It was a shocker from start to finish."
The Challenge: Battle for a New Champion premieres Wednesday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MTV. A launch special featuring an exclusive sneak peek at the cast, The Challenge: Battle for a New Champion: Countdown Begins, will air in the same time slot Wednesday, Oct. 18.